Terrorism and Evolutionary Perspective

Confronting terrorism is an arena in which the modern West can and must apply culturally mature leadership. A culturally mature response to terrorism, executed well, results not just in effective defense policy, but a modeling of mature and creative leadership for the world more generally.

Two questions are key to address: First, what is terrorism’s origin? And second, given that origin, how do we best respond?

Effectively understanding terrorism’s origin is essential if we are not simply to view terrorists as evil people and act accordingly. See from a culturally mature perspective, terrorism is an expected product of how globalization is pushing people from different cultural stages into ever greater proximity. Note a couple consequences of this explanation: 1) Without an understanding of how culture’s evolve and what one should expect when particular stages clash (understanding that most people lack) it is exceedingly difficult to make useful sense of terrorism. And 2) There is not an easy answer solution to terrorism. In fact that is nothing “wrong” with the basic circumstance that produces it (globalization is a nature product of technological change and differing cultural stages is just how thing are).

As far as how we best respond, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. It does mean we need to be attentive to limits to what may be possible, systemic and creative in our approaches, and more patient than we might prefer as far as how quickly results are likely to be seen. Two weeks following the 9/11/01 attack on the New York World Trade Center, I sent out a white paper “alert” to three hundred opinion leaders from around the world. (Later published in the Journal of Futures Studies.) I warned of dangers that could result if we reacted without the needed maturity of perspective and outlined a “three-legged stool” strategy. A brief description of the three legs — adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future — follows:

Consistent with what we expect with culturally mature perspective, this description presents a rather common sense strategy, and one that is not very visible if executed well. (It is not “heroic” in the old sense). But at the same time, making full sense of it demands particular sophistication. At the least, each leg requires that we “bridge” traditional assumptions of both the Left and the Right. We see the more basic of culturally mature capacities reflected in each leg. Policy to this point has sometimes paralleled these suggestions, and also often stopped decidedly short:

Leg#1: Establish new boundary safeguards—such as at airports, borders, and ports—with a keen eye to the likelihood of unconventional approaches (surprise is key to what makes terrorism work). This is the “home-land security” piece and here the United States has made generally acceptable beginning steps. Note that this “leg” of the stool challenges favorite conclusions of both political poles. The Left confronts limits in the recognition that it is impossible to execute without some curtailment of individual freedoms. The Right is stretched by how such boundaries will always be imperfect and by how trying to make them otherwise will result in reactiveness and a degree of freedom curtailment that contradicts the reason for making them.

Leg #2: Pursue terrorists worldwide. This “leg” can stretch the Left in how much of it must be intelligence- and often military-based. It does so more specifically with how preemption (taking action not in response to harm, but in anticipation of harm) must necessarily be on the table with terrorism. The Right has to accept that effectiveness hinges on global cooperation. It also has to recognize how any strategy that confuses defeating evil leaders and nations with the needed more precise and nuanced actions will in the end produce the opposite of the desired outcome.

Leg #3: Address the causes of terrorism. This policy “leg” has most immediate appeal to left-leaning political sentiments. But executing it requires at the least a willingness to accept limits to how effective our actions can be. Poverty, inequality, and bad past polices contribute to terrorism, but the larger cause is the way globalization puts people who are different not just in belief and economic advantage, but in the stage in cultural development they occupy, in unavoidable proximity. Awareness of how this works is essential to good policy, but we can’t undo it and wouldn’t want to. We also face simple economic constraints to what we can do. The political right needs to accept that “softer” tactics such as diplomatic efforts in world hot spots; addressing hunger, poverty, and powerlessness; and supporting education of the world’s people (particularly women) will ultimately have the greatest effect on terrorism. They also must recognize that attempting to impose governmental forms that they may associate with freedom (and thus terrorism’s opposite), will only incite more terrorism when those forms are not timely

There is nothing particularly dramatic or original in what I put forward. But while our three legs each represents common sense, this is a level of common sense that we are only now learning to achieve. We see this in how three of the most basic of culturally mature capacities play a role with each leg in this strategy: getting beyond ideology, acknowledging limits, and applying more systemic measures when making decisions.

As far as getting beyond ideology, certainly we need to get beyond our past nee for “evil others”—think of terrorism only as an evil to be eradicated and we will make dangerous and shortsighted choices. In addition, as I’ve described, we must shun the easy-answer seductions of traditional political ideology. We need more systemically nuanced ways of thinking and leadership that is more mature in its basic posture if our actions are to be effective.

With regard to limits, each “leg” requires the acceptance of an ultimate constraint: terrorism can only be limited and contained, not eradicated. Combating terrorism effectively also requires that we accept limits to usual ways of thinking about conflict. Is terrorism an act of war and thus appropriately framed in the language of war and responded to with war-like tactics? Or is it perhaps better thought of a criminal act and dealt with within the codes and structures of existing criminal-justice systems? It is neither, and we get in significant trouble if we choose either approach (and frequently more so if we hop back and forth between approaches as it suits us).

Each “leg” also requires a rethinking of the bottom line for our actions. Tactically, we must ask ourselves, If our job is not just “fighting bad guys” (in either the war or police-action sense) just what is it? More broadly, we must ask ourselves—with a directness and completeness that necessarily stretches us—what ultimately we want the confronting of terrorism to accomplish. The needed culturally mature response to terrorism starts with a clear commitment to keeping our eyes on what must ultimately be the prize, maximizing global safety and human possibility.

The lack of maturity in U.S. policy in the years immediately following 9/11 attacks was often very painful to witness. Certainly the Iraq War was unjustified and only contributed to terrorism’s spread. A general lack of mature capacity was part of the problem—something we see, for example, in the failure to get beyond nation-state-as-perpetrator thinking.

As important a contributor was the more specific lack of evolutionary perspective needed to understand terrorism as a developmentally predicted phenomenon and to act with the needed maturity in response. It is important to appreciate that the kind of global terrorism that is our concern reflects a very specific kind of conflict, a sort that is the consequence of the collision of cultures that reside at different developmental stages. Such terrorism is to be expected. It is an inescapable product of the greater proximity between peoples that comes with globalization. More often than not, ttempting to eliminate it solely by force only creates more of it. The only sane solution is committing necessary resources to containment (which includes combating terrorism militarily where appropriate) combined with acceptance that uncertainty and risk are real. We also need great patience. Short-term terrorist know they can outwait us. But long-term, cultural changes will make the terrorist’s cause increasingly irrelevant.

Without developmentally informed perspective, the fact that we see such terrorism at all can be difficult to comprehend. The actions of a suicide bomber make no sense to someone who grows up with the individualist assumptions of the modern West—except as evidence of insanity or evil. Some historical perspective—say, remembering back to the Christian religious fanaticism of the Crusades—at least makes the actions of terrorists more legitimately human actions. Developmental/evolutionary understanding helps us “hold life large” in ways that make projecting the less savory parts of ourselves less likely.

If we are to make good policy decisions, in the end we need not just a general appreciation that cultures, but also more specific temporal frameworks that map change over time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate. The belief that the people of Iraq would celebrate the presence of U.S. soldiers—certainly for any length of time—would have been naïve enough were Iraq a modern nation. But the larger portion of the Iraqi people reside at a cultural stage analogous to the late Middle Age in the West. This developmental reality makes polar intolerance for occupying forces totally predictable, and protracted antagonism and struggles for power between ethnic factions following the end of Sadam Hussein’s rule inescapable. The implied nation-building goal of an eventual modern Western-style democracy similarly ignored cultural realities. The eventual, more humble goal—a stable government that provides some balance of influence between factions and hopefully an eventual basis for representational authority—was more realistic. (However, we don’t know whether even this goal can be achieved. It is entirely possible that we have yet to see the carnage for which the second Iraq War will be most remembered.)

U.S. military action in Afghanistan was more justified, but from a developmental perspective, achieving success in the effort was predictably even more problematic. Most of Afghanistan’s population resides in an even earlier cultural stage than what we see with Iraq. (In his book The Wrong War, Bing West, who spent ten years fighting in Afghanistan, describes how he reluctantly came to the conclusion that modern Afghanistan resides in the equivalent of about 9th century Europe. Much of Afghanistan resides even earlier developmentally.) The nation-building task in Iraq was primarily one of rebuilding (though often, as conceived by the West, with new kinds of institutions). The task in Afghanistan involves building governmental structures from the ground up.

Besides resulting in unhelpful—and often destructive—actions, a lack of developmental/evolutionary perspective can also have us end up blind to what actually might be of benefit. Certainly it can leave us blind to cultural sensitivities that might make interventions more effective. But it can also have us miss ways that change can work in our favor. It is quite likely that the kind of change we’ve seen in other parts of the Middle East of late would have brought the fall of Sadam Hussein’s regime. We have witnessed despots successfully swept aside who were less egregious in their atrocities. And while the situation in Afghanistan is more complex, we benefit greatly from being similarly attentive to the kind of change that is most ripe to happen there.

Related posts, essays, and snippets:

Beyond Evil Empires